Changing geopolitical alliances in Indian Ocean and lessons for Sri Lanka

Changing geopolitical alliances in Indian Ocean and lessons for Sri Lanka
By Ameen Izzadeen
In 1988, the People’s Liberation Organisation of Tamil Eelam (PLOTE), a Tamil separatist group, undertook a mercenary mission to stage a coup in the Maldives. They were hired by Maldivian businessman Abdulla Luthfi. With the presidential residence coming under siege, the then Maldivian President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom sought Sri Lanka’s help first. Sri Lanka’s then President J.R. Jayewardene was inclined to respond with military assistance to defeat the coup, but was restrained by political realities of South Asia. Gayoom apparently realising that he should have sought India’s help first immediately made amends. India launched a military operation codenamed Cactus, crushed the coup and arrested the mercenaries at mid-sea while they were fleeing in a hijacked Maldivian naval vessel.
If India’s intervention to foil the coup was a high point in what was known as the Indira doctrine, perhaps, a low point was when the Maldives had the audacity to tell India to mind its own business. This happened in October 2015, when India raised concern over the the arrest of one-time Maldivian President Mohamed Nasheed. The then Maldivian President Abdulla Yameen told India’s then External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj that his government would not tolerate foreign interference in domestic issues. A red-faced New Delhi interpreted Yameen’s message as being directed for “a larger audience” and “not for India only”.
The tiny Maldives’ new-found courage to defy the South Asian superpower stemmed from its close ties with China. Much to the chagrin of India, the Yameen government signed the Maritime Silk Route (MSR) agreement with China and several investment deals, including the one that led to the building in record time of the 2.1 km long landmark friendship bridge connecting Hulhulé, the airport atoll, and the reclaimed atoll of Hulhumalé. It revoked the Nasheed government’s contract to an Indian company to run the Male International Airport.
Over the years, with the demise of the US-Soviet cold war, the gradual rise of China as an emerging power in world politics, and India’s pro-US foreign policy shift, the Indira doctrine had remained somewhat dormant and, at times, even challenged.
At one point, however, even the US recognised the doctrine, despite India being seen as a pro-Soviet nation in the Cold War context. In the mid-1980s, when the then pro-US Sri Lankan government sought military aid from Washington to fight separatist rebels in the country’s north and east, it was told to get India’s approval first. India was at that time was more than sympathetic to the rebels’ cause, providing them with financial and military assistance.
Named after former Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, the doctrine dictates to India’s neighbours barring Pakistan that they cannot seek the intervention of a foreign country to sort out a domestic issue unless such a request is first made to India. It caused consternation among India’s neighbours who later devised a South Asian regional corporation arrangement to check India and assert their sovereignty. However, the doctrine, more or less, determined international relations in the South Asian region in the 1970s and throughout the years until China made its presence felt in South Asia with its aid diplomacy in the 2000s.
Recent events point to a reincarnation of the Indira doctrine. It now operates in collaboration with the US, against the backdrop of what India, the US and their allies see as a growing threat from China. The re-calibrated doctrine encompasses a larger geographical area known as Indo-Pacific — a region of convergence for geo strategic interests of India, the US, and their close military allies Japan and Australia. The four are partners of a soon-to-be formalized military alliance now called the Quadrilateral or the Quad.
As a result, today, India has no issue when the Maldives signs a security agreement with the US, though in 2013, New Delhi, despite its growing security ties with the US, was perturbed over indications that the then Maldivian President Mohamed Waheed Hassan’s government would sign a Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) with the US, allowing US boots on the Maldivian ground. Waheed denied these reports.
However, under the pro-China government of Waheed’s successor, Abdulla Yameen, US-Maldives security pact moves sank to the bottom of the Indian Ocean, only to be salvaged by the present President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih who is being backed by former President and present Majlis Speaker Nasheed, whose pro-West and pro-India credentials are well known.
Kept in the loop during the negotiations, India welcomed the September 10 agreement signed by Maldivian Defence Minister Mariya Didi and US Assistant Defence Secretary Reed Werner in Washington. This is because the deal known as the US-Maldives framework of Security Relationship formally signals the Maldives’ entry into the Indo-Pacific alliance steered jointly by the US and India.
With a growing uncertainty over the fate of the massive US military base in Diego Garcia following the legal battle to regain the Chagos Islands for Mauritius, the question is whether the Maldives will be the replacement with India’s blessings.
India’s ties with the Maldives have seen an exponential growth since the Solih government was elected to office in November 2018. India has undertaken a project to expand the Maldives’ airport. The project was earmarked for a Chinese company by the previous Yameen government. This week India inaugurated a ferry service to facilitate direct cargo trade between the two countries with the aim of elevating itself to the Maldives’ number one trading partner from the current fourth position. Also this week, India pledged a $250 million loan to the Maldives to boost its coronavirus-battered economy, taking the total Indian assistance pledged to the Maldives since Solih became president to more than US$2 billion.
It is naïve to believe that the US-Maldives defence agreement has escaped China’s attention. Writing an op-ed article in the Community Party mouthpiece Global Times, Long Xingchun, a senior researcher at the Beijing Foreign Studies University and president of the Chengdu Institute of World Affairs, derided Indian media reports that tried to make China the target of the US-Maldives defence deal.
“If there is really a target of the deal, it should be India rather than China. As the most powerful country in the Indian Ocean, India has always regarded the region as its own sphere of influence and it remains highly vigilant against the presence of countries from outside of the region,” Long said.
He added that Indian Ocean nations were unwilling to see the Indian Ocean ruled by one or two great powers. “Great powers should no longer engage in setting their spheres of influence. China does not oppose any friendly country’s cooperation with India. It is hoped that India will have a healthy attitude and stop interfering with the mutually beneficial cooperation between China and countries in South Asia and the Indian Ocean region.”
In the changing political alignments of the Indian Ocean, there are geopolitical lessons for other South Asian nations such as Sri Lanka which is in denial of compulsion to sign security pacts with the US amid a growing US-China cold war that on Tuesday manifested as a Covid war at the virtual United Nations General Assembly summit.
(This article first appeared in the Daily Mirror, Sri Lanka)

About ameenizzadeen

journalist and global justice activist
This entry was posted in Political analysis, Sri Lanka, Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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